Musical Futures – the Marmite of Music Education?

A debate kicked off in a Facebook group recently as it often does. A simple question asking ‘Musical Futures yay or nay?’ resulted in the spewing forth of polarised opinion and sadly as it so often does, it got personal. “How do you teach Stravinsky using Musical Futures” one person asked. Why teach Stravinsky? (not put quite so politely) featured in a number of replies. Being on a different time zone, overnight here, the comments escalated and I really considered whether to contribute. Over the long time that I have been associated with Musical Futures (the original Informal Learning Pilots which my school participated in were a terrifying number of years ago now), I have been accused of: (amongst many other things)

  • being the MF ‘Mafia’
  • being overly ‘dogmatic’
  • consciously doing a disservice to the children I teach and the teachers I have trained by engaging with informal learning and other ‘creative’ approaches
  • dumbing down what’s on offer for my students
  • being ‘anti notation’
  • too many other negative things to be bothered to remember

But you know what? I am a teacher. Like all teachers, I get up every day and I go to school (or sit at my laptop waiting for the ping of arrivals to an online lesson) to do my best to bring things to life for my students. I try to make informed choices about what and how I teach, in the hope that it will have a positive impact on the children. I am not particularly beholden to one way or another, I mash things together to suit me, my school and my students and I try not to judge other teachers that make different choices to me. But I do try to share things that I have tried, because it’s through this kind of sharing that I have found so many new ideas and thoughts to feed into my own development as a teacher.

Yes I am frustrated when people have never used informal learning in the classroom, have never spent years personalising it, nurturing it, evolving it, start dictating what is and what is not dogmatic. I do feel sad when I hear approaches that have worked so effectively for me in turning around impossibly challenging classes be comprehensively derided. I feel sorry for teachers who are trying new things, taking risks, looking to develop by exploring new things or who are working in schools with no budgets, no music colleagues, no SLT support. When you realise, that for good reasons you aren’t teaching like the guy giving the Keynote who is scathing about what you are doing, it makes you question yourself, your values and all the things that you can see are making a difference because they work for you and your students. I was that teacher for a while at the start of my career. It’s pretty demoralising.

So with all that in mind I reflected on whether Musical Futures really is the Marmite of Music Education due to the strength of feeling, positive and negative, that people have about it and the lengths that they will go to either support or condemn it. And I suppose in order to really dig into that you have to first identify what Musical Futures actually was, is and/or how it is understood as it has continually evolved in the hands of teachers who have used it, organisations built around it and people who care about it and implement it in music education settings around the world.

I want to write about some of this, over time. I will probably do so without proper academic references, without hyperlinks to further reading. I’m on a journey of reflection at a time where things across the world are not as they were and probably never will be again.

Meanwhile, how would I teach Stravinsky to 13 year olds using Musical Futures?

There is a lot to dig into about Informal Learning with Western Classical Music in the archives, but I reckon I would use classroom workshopping (not unique to to MF but that’s where I came across it and grew to love it).

We might start with rhythms, taking that first driving quaver pattern from The ROS, play around with accents and maybe dip into playing with time signatures and beats in a bar and ask do those change how the music sounds?

Then we might create some chord clusters together hearing, choosing, changing and add those in.

Next maybe we could do some melody work using scales inspired by folk music. Craft some melodies together until we have created a totally new piece of music.

Finally I would then play them The ROS. I wonder if any of what they would hear might sound somehow familiar to them, having explored lots of the musical and compositional techniques in their own class composition.

When we finally return to face-to face teaching here I will try it with a class. It sounds like it could be fun.

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